It’s that time of year again: Colleges and universities are opening their doors, and students are buckling down, buying their books, and organizing their schedules as they prepare to go back to school for the fall semester. While this seasonal influx of students into lecture halls doesn’t massively impact all industries, it does impact the healthcare industry, which is already straining to cover staffing needs due to the ongoing nursing shortage.
How Many Nursing Professionals Go Back to School?
The back-to-school season affects not only the workforce of registered nurses (RNs) but of licensed practical nurses (LPNs) and certified nursing assistants (CNAs) as well. There are many motivations for nursing professionals to go back to school to advance their careers, such as the following:
- Many see the increased earning capabilities as a suitable motivator as there is a stark difference between the average LPN and average RN salaries.
- Others may be reaching limits to their scope of practice due to their level of licensure.
- Still others entered the nursing occupation in a supportive role based on what their finances could manage at the time and are progressing up the ladder as time and resources allow.
According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), there are presently 747 RN-to-BSN programs (for RNs with associate’s degrees to obtain Bachelor of Science in Nursing degrees) and 658 schools of nursing that offer Masters of Nursing Science (MSN) programs that are up and running across the country; currently, enrollment for the bridge programs is around 98,000, and MSN programs have over 131,000 students. Additionally, there are over 600 LPN-to-RN bridge programs, although enrollment data is unavailable.
How Does Clinicians Returning to School Affect Healthcare Staffing?
With a large workforce population of over 5 million RNs, 970,000 LPNs, and 1.3 million CNAs—all positions along a path with opportunities for advancement—it’s perhaps not surprising that August would be an especially challenging time of year for administrators and schedulers as they work to adjust scheduling accommodations and address new vacancies or shift gaps. How do these adjustments lead to healthcare staffing fluctuations and shortages?
Nurses leaving their staff positions in order to focus on advanced-paced programs to attain their licensure goals poses challenges for healthcare facilities, both due to the staffing vacancies and the loss of valuable experience among the nursing staff.
Not all nursing professionals who go back to school leave their jobs entirely; hybrid programs that fuse online curricula with in-person training or clinicals are widely popular because they allow those working to perhaps keep their staff positions—albeit with reduced hours. Nevertheless, having even a few nurses or nursing assistants on staff reduce their hours from full- to part-time is no small challenge.
Increased position vacancies and reduced availability of staff leave administrators and schedulers with the problem of maintaining safe patient-to-nurse staffing ratios. Recruiting a new RN for a staff position takes approximately 95 days; furthermore, facilities may not want to hire new staff to fill positions across the board because that limits their flexibility in adjusting to patient admissions. Therefore, short-term staffing strategies are important tools, and there is no better short-term tool than to utilize per diem nursing professionals to fill the gaps.
Does the Demand for Per Diem Nurses Increase in the Fall?
The demand for per diem nurses (also referred to as PRN nurses) often increases in the fall. This increase can be correlated to the increased staffing demands from facilities due to some staff going back to school and to the change in weather and the usual ailments, viruses, and such that accompany this change.
The fact is that utilizing PRN nurses is an effective, affordable, and flexible method of addressing staffing shortages. When facilities hire PRN nurses on Nursa’s open healthcare marketplace, there are quick results, no long-term commitments, and no financial resources spent on benefits (retirement, insurance, etc.).
By hiring PRN nurses one shift at a time, facilities can accomplish all of the following:
- Adjust their staffing needs efficiently to correlate with their patient admissions and fill the shift gaps created by the trusted staff who had to reduce their hours but will eventually return
- Schedule experienced nurses to cover vacancies while facilities seek out new permanent staff—with less pressure
- Source local talent unavailable for full-time positions but looking for contract work
- Avoid overburdening full-time staff, which increases burnout
- Facilitate retention and eschew high turnover costs
Are LPNs Still in High Demand?
LPNs continue to be in high demand. Projections for job growth for LPNs through 2031 show a growth rate of 6%, adding more than 55,000 jobs per year. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a large exodus of LPNs—reportedly 34,000, with a staggering 184,000 citing an intent to leave. LPNs perform direct nursing care—typically under the supervision of an RN—and, therefore, are vital participants in healthcare delivery teams.
The Truth about the Nursing Shortage
The truth is that healthcare staffing shortages are not a new problem for the industry. Nursing organizations and advocates have long warned of a shortage. Prior to the pandemic, organizations worldwide planned for 2020 to be the Year of the Nurse, a large-scale effort to increase legislative attention and funding toward addressing what was already a substantial nursing shortage. This global campaign was usurped by COVID-19’s spread across the globe, and while the pandemic arguably brought more public attention to the nursing shortage than would have been possible through the previously planned campaign, it also exacerbated the shortage as large numbers of nurses left their jobs, and turnover peaked at 22.5% in 2022.
As the baby boomer generation continues to age, their medical needs increase—as does the complexity of those needs. This generation—appropriately named for its size—encompasses a population of 73 million, and according to the United States Census Bureau, in 2030, the youngest of them will turn 65. For context, that’s more than double the number of adults over 65 in the year 2000.
Nurses are the largest cohort in almost all healthcare settings, and an estimated 1 million of them are part of the baby-boomer generation, which means that a significant portion of the nursing workforce will retire, leaving jobs behind but taking their valuable experience with them.
What’s the Impact of the Nursing Shortage on Patient Safety?
The impact of the nursing shortage on patient safety can be observed as a sequence of connections. First, the nursing shortage leads to staffing challenges, which lead to low nurse-to-patient ratios, which, in turn, impact patient safety.
Studies support this association between nurse staffing ratios and patient safety. Namely, as the number of patients a nurse is responsible for increases, so too increase all of the following: patient length of stay, patient safety events, medication errors, and patient mortality.
Cover Staffing Gaps As Your Nursing Professionals Go Back to School
This August, you can use PRN nursing professionals to temporarily fill vacancies by using Nursa, the open healthcare marketplace that connects your facility with PRN healthcare staff near you. Protect your patients and your staff by maintaining safe nurse-to-patient ratios every shift when you contract experienced nurses and nursing assistants who work PRN.